178 High St Heathcote, VIC 3523
|Opening hours||Fri-Mon noon-3.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 4432 7951|
As far as last meals go, you could do a lot worse than Chauncy Heathcote. Set in a tiny sandstone fortress in the wine town's main street, it's the kind of story you have to love.
A young hospitality couple who burn for the craft, who fell hard for the finessed farm-forward excellence of provincial French restaurants while working overseas, and who have successfully transplanted that beautiful, wafty vision onto the perfect backdrop for the job.
Marble meets gilded mirrors and glossy floors that creak with history underfoot. There's the billow of linen drapes, big tapestries with ancient elegance, but also sprays of eucalyptus as a centrepiece, dragging you back to Heathcote and giving the restaurant its proper sense of place.
The concept is solid. A spare, considered set-menu of European wine food (mostly French with a few Italian tilts). It is built for towns like this, which are girt with the kind of produce to make it sing. But what counts more is that the restaurant is true to the couple behind it.
Chef Louis Naepels, a former head chef at Grossi Florentino, has the skills to do exactly the right thing to the impeccable produce he's gathering about him from local heroes.
That might be something technical like making a perfectly spiced duck neck sausage from the whole Macedon ducks he gets in, part of a waste-free main that features the bird three ways. Or as restrained as letting a youthful zucchini, flower attached, flaunt its sweet snappy flesh shrouded in nothing but a crisp tempura jacket.
Tess Murray, a former Supernormal super sommelier, is hardly a mere support act for the show. Her largely European wine matches – including a blossomy yet tensioned Domaine Regis Minet 2020 Pouilly-Fume with the opening snack, and the textured Tibouren Clos Cibonne rosé that gives a high five to a rich pasta dish – brings the astute, exciting angle to Naepels' well-handled classics.
With their powers combined, this tiny, tidy little ship is sailing smoothly through the most turbulent seas Australia's hospitality scene has ever known. That's no small feat. And with word of its modest excellence rising from a whisper to a roar, I'd suggest setting your course north-west of Melbourne, stat.
Perhaps the menu doesn't read as wildly out of the box. We start with comte gougeres, a cheesy profiterole that has been a favourite salve from restaurants like the late, great Jacques Reymond for decades.
There follows a neat, elegant card of chicken liver parfait, silky and pure with onions assuaged of their sting through a mellow pickling, plus that baby zucchini, with a light cloud of tangy goat's curd to scoop into the flower for extra bite.
But never, ever underestimate the thrill of a classic being nailed. Proof in cheesy puff: the comte comes through loud and clear in those gougeres, whose crisp outer shell and slightly gooey, hollow interior show a kitchen and floor team getting technique and timings just right.
Simple doesn't mean Naepels can't blow your hair back. A Russian roulette of grilled mild-or-spicy friggitello peppers, bedded in a silky fragrant pool of charred eggplant with strips of cured pork jowl is a king-hit combination, made better still by warm bread, malty, sticky, chewy and charry in the crust.
The charm avalanche keeps coming at Chauncy. It's unfussed, but so finessed. Small but mightily on the ball. As we reach the mid-course, a predictably excellent ricotta ravioli in a sweet summery sugo (with unpredictable boost from a little cumin), some tables overtake others as they rush or relax, and the team adjusts pace to suit.
It's too hot for it on this day, but the possibility is there to spill outside to the gravel for boules and icy, cloudy glasses of pastis.
It's the kind of story Victoria sorely needs: young couple makes their own (and a regional town's) dining dream come true. Where the passion isn't shouted, but also can't be repressed as it explodes out of every glass and plate.
Consider their parting shot: a scoop of chocolate mousse shows the confidence to just do something well, but there's also a sneaky slug of local olive oil, pure Victorian gold, shooting it into a new dimension. What a way to go out.
And what a way, after eight incredible years writing love letters to the restaurants of this state, for me to go out, too.
Chauncy is my final story, and there couldn't have been a better one. It's what happens when hospitality transcends service to really hold you in an altered state.
When a chef knows to cook their truth. That is what makes great restaurants. Always. That's what makes this one.
Cost: $85 for four-course prix fixe menu plus drinks.
Drinks: An exciting, eclectic list of largely European wines, with expert advice on hand.
Pro tip: Plan to stay overnight to take advantage of the wines.